Streets of Kingston: Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli is considered one of the most dangerous and volatile areas in Kingston.  Plain and simple.  We have been told that from websites, car rental companies (who don’t offer insurance in Jamaica due to so many thefts), an AP photographer I met at the airport, and even the woman at the photo store who says she has never been there and shook her head that we had.

You might wonder, “How on earth is a 6’6″ white American able to stroll into violent areas and not be harmed?” Well the truth is it can be dangerous, but we have taken precautions to mitigate the chances.  Our key to safety and learning about each neighborhood and the youth inside it is by being with the right people when we walk in.  The Y.U.T.E. program connects us with CEOs (Community Engagement Officers) within each community who are responsible for recruiting, tracking, and working with the youth engaged in the program.  There would be no way that we could walk through these communities if we didn’t have the contacts that we do.

Field researcher meeting with a group of women in Tivoli

The reason Tivoli jumps to the top of the list of violent areas is because it is the most recent in the local’s mind.  It was just over a year ago that the “Don” of Tivoli Gardens, Michael Christopher “Dudus” Coke, had surrendered himself to be extradited to the U.S. after over 70 people had been killed while protecting him, pursuing him, or being a bystander in the process.  The locals considered him a hero and a godfather providing food, money, and protection; but the government considered Dudus a thug and drug dealer who had warrants out for his arrest in U.S.

As it was described to us by some locals, the neighborhood literally became a war zone.  The community fought for Dudus, oftentimes to their death, being killed by local police and military ordered to capture him.  The military was shocked with the preparation and ammunition of the locals.  The Gleaner newspaper of Jamaica reported…

“Areas that should have been secured in minutes took us hours to secure as the thugs, armed with high-powered weapons, responded with a ferocity that I have never seen before…One boy with an AK (AK-47 assault rifle) kept the helicopter man busy for almost an hour before a sniper get him”

Tivoli was more somber than Denham Town, which we had walked the day before.  People were a little more skeptical of us and what we were doing but thankfully we had the youth who’d vouch for our cause.  One woman told us that her whole store had been raided by police and she hasn’t had the money to restart; she believes if Dudus was around that wouldn’t have happend.  The locals lost a leader and a father, they are still in mourning.

One older man, who seemed to be the ‘Don’ of the corner, waved with authority for me to come over and inquired about why I had a camera.  After explaining my purpose he said I should go see their chicken coops and maybe we could help them get more chickens to raise.  Jason and I were the only two from our team and were wandering around with two youth but we started to get separated because so many people were talking to us.  Next thing you know, I was walking down the side of some exposed storm drain with walls on both sides, being escorted by two guys I had just met.  After 100 yards we arrived to a large hole in the wall that revealed Lizard Town on the other side.

I trusted the guys I was with, but I had a hard time trusting the environment I was stepping into.  However it wasn’t long before my heart of caution became a heart of compassion for these people.  It was just over a year ago when many had died, true, but there are also hundreds of thousands who were affected by the raids and have to live with what is left of their homes, businesses, and lives.

The young man who brought us into this area showed us where he lived and cared for the chickens. He also told us about how he was captured during the raids and tied up while he watched his friends be killed and similarly tied down.  Even today, “because Dudus isn’t around,” there are murders every day due to small altercations.  This young man spoke emotionally about Dudus and it was apparent that he was still a believer in him.

As the sun begins to set each night, military and police roll in with their full body armor and and heavy artillery.  This is the current solution to keep the peace in the neighborhood, and even then it is not always peaceful.

This post isn’t meant to be political or subjective but to merely show the perspective of those who often aren’t able to share beyond their community.  This experience is exactly why we do what we do, to gain a deeper understanding of the community we are meant to impact regardless of politics, religion, race, turf lines or otherwise.

ON A LIGHTER NOTE: Not every person we interact with is a potential client or future business owner, but some are definitely inspiring.  The children in this neighborhood managed to maintain a positive, often sassy, attitude despite all of their setbacks.  I believe it is our purpose to employ the youth, not only because it creates jobs, but because it instills confidence.  The youth are the future of Tivoli and Kingston at large, they need to know and feel their self-worth.  That is why we are here.